Collins has life back on track

Kerry Collins had a flashback to 1996 as he watched quarterback Donovan McNabb lead the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFC semifinals.

It was Collins' second year in the NFL and he had a sense of invincibility leading the Carolina Panthers to the NFC championship game.

``I thought I could do no wrong,'' the New York Giants quarterback said Thursday. ``I played with no fear, and I see that in him right now. You play with that kind of confidence you can do a lot of things.''

As Collins and the Giants (12-4) approach Sunday's NFC semifinal with McNabb and the Eagles, Collins no longer has that sense of invincibility.

Life experience has taught him to be more respectful.

Despite losing twice to New York in the regular season, the Eagles (12-5) are playing well enough to beat the Giants, Collins said.

Life experience also has taught the 28-year-old player that things can change quickly. The Packers beat the Panthers in the NFC championship in 1996, and Collins' career fell apart in two years as a drinking problem led to him being labeled a quitter and a racist and eventually being waived.

Collins has resurrected his career since signing with the Giants as free agent in 1999. He took over as the starting quarterback this season and led the team to the best record in the NFC by completing 311 of 529 passes for a career-best 3,610 yards. He also has thrown 22 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.

He has the Giants two wins away from the team's first Super Bowl appearance since the 1990 season.

``I've been knocked around a little bit the past few years so I don't have that sense of invincibility any more,'' Collins said. ``I think you go through some things and make mistakes. I think you play with a little more awareness of some of the things that can go wrong. I think that allows you to play smart and I am playing smarter.''

That's been true against the Eagles this season. Collins completed 43 of 66 passes for 473 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Giants posted two one-sided victories.

Collins can't explain why the Giants have dominated Philadelphia other than New York hasn't turned the ball over and has played smart.

The defense also has contained McNabb, thanks in large part to the offense controlling the ball for about 83 of a possible 120 minutes.

``Kerry has been very solid,'' tight end Pete Mitchell said. ``He is making plays and doing things to help the offense. He's not making mistakes. He's making big plays and big throws.''

It's the kind of play that has saved Jim Fassel's job. But that's not why the coach smiles when talking about Collins.

``Put the football aside and take the sweat shirt off,'' Fassel said. ``I'm impressed and very happy the type of changes that young man has made in his lifestyle. That's not easy to do. It's very difficult and most people can't do it, especially in the glare of the New York media.''

Collins also is going out of his way to help people. He has established a charity to build a computer center in the children's center at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, donating $1,000 for every touchdown and $2,000 for each win. It's raised $46,000 so far this year.

``It's reaffirming to know that if I do things the right way I can be a success regardless of what I have done in the past or what was said or what people say I can't do,'' Collins said.

In some ways it's like being back in 1996, except this time Collins is smarter. He also wants to find a way to get to the Super Bowl.

The only problem is finding a way to beat McNabb and company.